Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition First Generation of Women Archaeologists


Virginia Randolph Grace (1901-1994)

Virginia Grace graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1922 with an A.B. degree cum laude in Greek and English. In 1927, she enrolled as a student at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, inspired by an article in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin written by Dorothy Burr. Compelled by her experiences at the American School, she returned to Bryn Mawr for graduate work, receiving her M.A. in Classical Archaeology in 1930 and her Ph.D in 1934.

In the spring of 1931, with a traveling fellowship from Bryn Mawr, Grace accompanied Lucy Shoe to the Hellenistic site of Pergamon in Turkey, where she acquired her first excavation experience. At Pergamon, she saw the famed "Pergamene deposit" of stamped amphora handles, which sparked her interest in this class of artifact. That year, she also excavated at the site of Halae, Greece under Hetty Goldman. In 1932, Grace became a staff member of the recently opened American Excavations at the Athenian Agora in Greece. Within a year, she began studying the stamped amphora handles unearthed in the Agora, and she published the results of her research in her first article, "Stamped Amphora Handles Found in the American Excavations in the Athenian Agora, 1931-32," which she also submitted as her dissertation for the Ph.D. degree at Bryn Mawr (1934).



Grace returned to Turkey in 1935 as a member of the Bryn Mawr Tarsus Excavations, again under Hetty Goldman, where she studied the amphora handles and contributed her analysis of them to the final excavation publication. By this time, it had become clear to Grace that she had found her area of specialization, and, in 1936, she was appointed as a research fellow at the Agora in Athens expressly for work on the stamped amphora handles. Grace remained in Athens for the duration of her life, leaving only for a brief period during World War II, when she was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Through her lifelong study of amphora handles, Grace laid the foundations of a new discipline within archaeology and established that amphoras and their stamps could be used as a tool for closely dating archaeological contexts. She best demonstrated the validity of this new tool in her article, "The Middle Stoa Dated by Amphora Stamps" (Hesperia, 1985), where she securely dated the Agora’s Middle Stoa by means of 1,500 handles found in the building’s fill.

In 1989, Grace was awarded the Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America for her vision in seeing the significance of stamped amphora handles within the broader range of classical archaeology. When she died in Athens in 1994, Virginia Grace left behind an extraordinary archive consisting of over one hundred thousand records of the stamps used on ancient amphoras from sites throughout the Mediterranean world and 25,000 stamped handles found during excavations of the Athenian Agora.



Because of Virginia Grace’s pioneering work, amphoras and their stamped handles now provide a tool for closely dating archaeological contexts and serve as a primary indicator for tracing and understanding ancient trade in the Mediterranean. Amphoras were used to transport and store wine, olive oil, and other liquids. The handles of commercial amphoras were typically labeled by stamp impressions made before kiln firing, set on the tops of the handles. The stamps usually contained the manufacturer's name, a date, and the symbol of the city-state where the goods contained within the vessel originated.


Lucy Shoe Meritt